The Law and the Skin Trade in the Windy City
"Dirty Words" and The Adult Internet: Freedom of Speech vs. "Protection of the Kids"
By J. D. Obenberger, Attorney at Law
© MMI J. D. Obenberger, All Rights Reserved
Chicago is an amazing city that I have come to love in all of its multifaceted wonder. To paraphrase Dr. Samuel Johnson, when you're tired of Chicago, it means that you're tired of life.
Anyone who knows me well knows that Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry ranks near or at the top of my short list of the coolest places to spend time in this City of the Broad Shoulders. Hugh Hefner may have had some pretty wild pajama parties when he lived at The Mansion, but if I had to chose one or the other, I'd chose to attend the Pajama Party/Member's Overnight Sleepover at the Museum (with my kids) anytime. I've done it twice now, and it's an incredible experience to have the Museum all to yourself and two or three hundred other members for a night. Twice I have slept next to the Moon Rock, next to the Apollo Ten space capsule, and under the suspended Gemini capsule. Once, I sat for a long time alone in the cold silent hull of the U-505 World War II German submarine and it was, at least for me, one of the pinnacle experiences of life.
One of the special treats of the Sleepover in the Museum is the chance to take long and unhurried looks at the exhibits in close detail, and that is exactly what we do. While taking an intimate view of the new Internet Exhibit not long ago, I was suddenly jarred back into the world of free speech law that I do everyday. Near the beginning of the exhibit, on the wall, are posted two yellow signs with text to accompany the Exhibit. These are not signs about the transmission of digital packets nor the speed of T1 connections nor the development of web browsers, like the others. No, they carry a meaning more philosophically and politically important than the other signs along the way. And they challenge Liberty.
The first of these signs mentions federal laws that have been enacted with the aim of "making the internet safe for children" and the sign asserts that such a goal is a worthy challenge for society. The sign fails to explain that significant portions of the federal law have been declared unconstitutional as an improper restraint on everybody's speech.
The second of the two signs explains the so-called challenge of protecting children from "bad words".
I am concerned about these signs because the latest arrow in the quiver of the censors is the claim that speech must be suppressed and repressed "for the children". My personal suspicion is that among most activists of the censorial stripe, the real motivation is to affect what adults can read and see, because that is inevitably where their proposals take society. But no society can long call itself free when the standard of permissible speech, expression, and conduct is its suitability for a seven year old. An examination of the cultural norms of Iran and Iraq and other countries cut of the same cloth will convince any American except the censors-in-waiting that the public culture and expression of these places is simultaneously both suitable for seven year olds and so wholly repressive as to be unworthy as an American role model. The hunger for freedom of the people living in those places routinely expresses itself in Internet hits on my Free Speech website (http://www.xxxlaw.net) from places like Saudi Arabia and Yemen. The Saudis are the third commonest visitors to my site who can be identified by nation of origin. I've given a lot of though to why they visit my site, and I can only conclude, since my site contains no pornography, that their curiosity about Liberty and Freedom is so powerful that it drives them to find websites that talk about living in Freedom. Maybe, to people in intellectual and moral shackles, a website devoted to Liberty lets them dream and fantasize about those things the same way pornography lets people fantasize about sex.
What are the censors talking about when they raise the issue of "bad words"? I have lived a full and rich life, I traveled a bit from the mid-Pacific to Eastern Europe,, and I've met and talked with thousands of people of every circumstance and walk of life, but I have never encountered a "bad word" anywhere. As a result, I really wouldn't know how to explain to a child what a "bad word" is.
All words are good, or at least neutral.
Obviously some words are better than others for particular purposes. If a word serves no good purpose, it doesn't remain a part of our living language for long, and it gets filed away in comprehensive dictionaries like The Oxford English Dictionary under the tag, "Obsolete".
But few of the words commonly labeled as vulgar or obscene in most dictionaries are in much danger of becoming obsolete.
Some words are totally inappropriate for certain times, places, and circumstances, but moments do arise when the even most frequently inappropriate words are the most perfect and inspired choice of the thoughtful communicator. Sometimes they are the only words that make any sense at all to use.
When I was growing up, in a home where none of the common Anglo-Saxon words for sexual and excretory functions were ever used, and where I heard them only on the playground, I came to the easy but false conclusion that many of these words, like "horny", had been coined recently, and that these were words my parents had never heard. I don't think that I was alone in this misapprehension. As a result, I had a lot of anxiety about all of them. Later in life, living in the dorms in college, where almost every sentence seemed to be punctuated with one of the so-called vulgarities, I had memorable nightmares in which I used one of these words at home in front of my parents: It would be hard even today to write about what the reaction of my parents was in these dreams. So, it was more than pretty funny when, during a summer vacation, my Sicilian-American Mother, during a peak moment of excitement about some now-forgotten issue became so enraged that she used the "F-word" in my presence for the first and only time. I burst out laughing right then and there, and told her about my nightmares about using the same word. Her anger instantly converted into a warm and loving moment that never would have come to pass if she hadn't used that word, and I owe that precious moment and happy memory to her use of that same word.
I don't believe in teaching children that any word is bad and I wouldn't waste any time or effort in protecting children from things - like "bad words" - that don't exist. Parents should explain carefully to children that words are powerful things that trigger action and emotions, (sometimes rationally and other times not) and that some words are so special and powerful that they must reserved for, and seldom expressed except in very special times and places. They must know that some of these words are so powerful that if they are used out of their limited role, if they are used inappropriately, anger, violence, and even death may ensue in the real world. They must know that the effect of using some of these special words too often is to water down their effectiveness, power, and punch for what they convey in the moments when they can and should be used.
Children should know that there are words that they may hear and misunderstand, and use very inappropriately without meaning to do so, and they should have the security in parental love to know that they can take any new word home talk to their parents about it. Parents, in turn, should know, and learn if they do not, the reasons why these words are treated specially and be prepared to tell children the interesting story of how words Germanic in origin came to be viewed as low and dirty words in modern English under the influence of a Norman French ruling class in England a long time ago.
I do not understand what is meant when the censors-in-waiting talk about making the Internet "safe for children". The Internet is a vital tool of society no less important to adult societal needs than the Interstate Highway System. I have never heard anyone speak of making the Kennedy Expressway "safe for children". An Interstate Highway that is "safe for children" is not much of an interstate highway, and it is not much of a playground either. Our Interstates have fences, in part, to keep children off of them. They are not playgrounds and no rational person would consider allowing children to wonder upon them. It would be insanity to propose outlawing semi-trailer tractors from I-94 so that children could better utilize it as a resource for games and education.
We recoil at the idea of letting children in tricycles and bicycles and play cars drive though areas handling adult motorized traffic.
Children and adults have no business meeting in traffic. On the roads or on the Internet. Any proposal honestly aimed at the welfare of children will take that priority seriously.
They should be separated in a way that does justice to the needs of each.
There is no sound reason to reduce the Internet and its content to a place suitable for seven year olds, and the attempt to do so serves only to destroy the Internet as a forum and tool of use to adults in the expression of free speech to serve society and the needs of its members. Communication transforms and enriches as it circulates ideas and emotions and dreams, all of them elements of the lifeblood of society. Expression diluted to match the capability of children hits a target far lower than the threshold necessary to transform anything more than small, young minds.
I have heard proposals, and we have all seen laws enacted, for the alleged purpose of "protecting the children" on the Internet. All of them are aimed at suppressing pornography and finding creative ways of punishing its dissemination while disavowing a censorial intent. None of them aim themselves at creating zones or areas where children must remain. It seems plain enough to me that the motive of the sponsors and the members of Congress who sympathize with them is really to censor what adults will be able to read and see, and that their so-called advocacy for children is a pretty thin pretext for the limitation on Liberty that they really seek to impose on all of society.
Unlike the Authoritarian Right, I don't believe in a faith-based Internet. Like the inspired founders of our nation, I am unalterably committed rather to a free society and I stand for the free press and a free Internet which assure its continuation.
The Internet is a sum of inventions that amount in whole to the most important invention of our lifetimes. It offers to completely change the way in which all humans look at themselves and the human race in a way exponentially greater than the printing press does. It offers to unite all of the people of the world in close personal friendships where distance matters little, and it facilitates and the free global flow of information and ideas, and beauty. By enhancing communication and making worldwide expression easy, cheap, and instantaneous, it is a powerful motive force for the improvement of everyone's life. Human progress emerges from the sharing of ideas, and so the Internet promises to rapidly accelerate progress in every sphere of life. It will transform us like nothing else before it.
A free Internet is also a key component in maintaining societal freedom, and that is why nations such as China, fearing the power of free speech on a free Internet, so dramatically limit the Internet content entering China. Their leaders fear freedom and that is why they fear the Internet. Here at home, we have advocates for censorship who fear sexuality, and they, too, fear a free Internet.
In recent years, our children of all levels have been exposed to discussions of sexual conduct in the Oval Office on the nightly news, and some the broadcasts mentioned presidential involvement in sexual acts that were just not spoken about, and were even against the law in many states not that long ago. When these sorts of things are discussed on the nightly news, there just is no way to keep children away from the accounts. Like the children raised in many societies with harsher realities than those of contemporary America, the children so exposed to this information will survive and prosper and grow up, and the Republic will probably not fall because they heard about oral sex before they were too young to understand it. To censor the content of nightly news so that its fare is fully suitable for the young children who will inevitably hear it, rather, is something that would endanger the safety and security of the Republic. The news must go forward in a free society so that an enlightened and knowledgable electorate can make the necessary choices and decisions of a democracy.
As thoughtful members of a democratic society, we must critically evaluate all arguments based on protection of children that operate to destroy the freedom of adults doing adult things with other adults. I have attended community meetings concerning Gentlemen's Clubs at which speakers have seriously argued that such places should be banned because it is impossible to answer the questions of children about what goes on in them. But children should and must be taught that many of the things done by adults are just not suitable for children, even though they are not evil. From ballroom dancing and cosmetics and nylons and shooting a shotgun and driving a car, to tea, coffee, alcohol, and games of chance, there is a whole realm of adult activity which we keep away from children, for their good development, and sexuality is just one of those things. We do not do so by banning any of them. We do so by keeping children away from them.
And we waste our time by talking about making a skeet-shooting range that is safe for children nor a bar that is safe for children, or a river boat casino that is safe for children. Advocacy in that direction would get the speaker hooted off the podium just about anywhere.
My suggestion is that, by international agreement, domains and zones of the Internet should be created which are expressly intended for children, a self-contained juvenile unit with components such as search engines directly analogous to the Internet used by adults. Computers and browsers should be designed to that, by parental control, access can be firmly and positively locked to these domains and zones at the level of the chip CMOS on all computers used by children unless the setting is changed in a password-protected protocol. Its access content may also be limited at the user end by geographic settings and a series of ratings regarding violence, eroticism, and other matters of prudent concern to the sound development of kids.
The adult internet is just not a place for kids and The Museum of Science and Industry should recognize that. It should do what it has always done best, the teaching of science and leave the social policy issues to free and spirited discussion by the members of a free society. Maybe they'll do it on the adult Internet!
This article is written to generally inform the public and does not provide legal advice nor does it establish an attorney-client relationship. If you have a legal issue or question, contact a lawyer. If you are arrested, make no statement and contact a lawyer immediately.
Joe Obenberger is a Chicago Loop lawyer concentrating in the law of free expression and liberty under the United States Constitution, and his firm has represented many owners, employees, and customers of adult-oriented businesses, both online and in the real world. He can be reached in the office at 312 558-6420 or paged in any emergency at 312 250-4118. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org